This year, my family and I started off our Christmas morning the way we always do: we go around to the homeless in our neighborhood, greet them warmly and wish them Merry Christmas, offer them a simple gift… water bottle, extra socks, nothing fancy. Every year, we are blown away by the joy and gratitude, but this time something special happened, and I want to tell you about it.
Why we do it
Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, and we give gifts out of a literal take on the scripture that says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did for me.” Caring for each other, and especially for the poor, is very near to the heart of the Christian message and is mentioned multiple times throughout the bible, but especially in the New Testament:
- Do you love me? Feed my lambs.
- The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
- Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.
Talk about homeless people in our society is usually about “solving the homeless problem”. Some of this conversation is conducted from the compassionate perspective of seeing everyone safe and warm at night, but that is the minority. More at issue, most of the time, is the fact that our society’s nice, clean, and well-dressed don’t like homeless people. You know the arguments: They smell bad. They are a nuisance. They are mentally ill, possibly criminals, potentially violent. Like all stereotypes, there may be elements of truth in all of that, but they loom much larger in imagination than they do in actual fact, and meanwhile much good is left undone out of fear.
How we do it
I’m a parent too. I’m not about putting my family in danger any more than you are. It’s not that hard to be sensible. We’re in a group. We’re in public places in broad daylight. We’re using common sense about whom to approach and praying over the whole process. We’re not “solving homelessness” and we’re not trying to. Yes, we also donate to causes that provide real structural support to the homeless, but Christmas morning isn’t about that.
In the hundreds of conversations I have had with homeless people, the #1 need that emerges again and again is simply to have their humanity acknowledged. The late Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, told a story about when he was homeless (due to alcoholism), and a woman once scolded her daughter away from approaching him, saying, “We don’t even look at that! That is just filth over there! That’s all that is.”
Contrast to the time when my daughter was younger, maybe 5, and she and I were speaking to a homeless man who seemed sad. She spontaneously hugged him, and he immediately began to weep. The grateful look of shock and relief on his face is one I will never forget. We can’t always give to the homeless, we can’t always hug them, but a look in the eye and a sincere smile do 90% of the job and cost us nothing.
What we receive
Many times, the homeless that we visit on Christmas morning want to give us a gift in return. One year, when a lady found out that my daughter loves to read, she dug out a well-traveled copy of her favorite book, Black Beauty, and joyfully presented it to her. This year, we received a work of art traced through with scriptural wisdom: the word “full” forming a bridge across faith, hope, and love, making them come “full” circle. Our “word(s)” becoming a double-edged “(s)word”. The young man who had drawn it sat with us, patiently, excitedly, teasing out, teaching. We left the encounter in a glow of spiritual discovery as profound as after any sermon.
So things to remember: first, spiritual wisdom is often conveyed in the humblest vessel. It is still very much true today that God chooses the so-called “weak” and “foolish” in order to shame the worldly “wise”. Second, the Prayer of Saint Francis says it best, “It is in giving that we receive.” In what we call “generosity”, we are often the ones who gain the most.